Brunch, Casa Bonita, and a homebrew

How a pastry whiz, a chef, and a brewing expert are finding ways to expand our culinary horizons

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Courtesy Jennifer Mesinger

Sometimes it only takes one bite to know that someone strong is behind the scenes obsessing about quality and attention to detail. 

Take the quintessential brunch dish, Eggs Benedict, served at the freshly renovated and rebranded Lucky’s Bakehouse Cafe. 

Each forkful features griddled, high-quality smoked ham, perfectly poached egg, and lemony scratch-made Hollandaise atop Breadworks English Muffin Bread. The flavors mesh perfectly. The hash browns at the Cafe are crispy, the coffee dark and smooth, and the pumpkin muffin with cocoa and cinnamon is sweetly satisfying.

It was everything you want in a morning meal with attentive service in a comfortable sunny environment. 

Frankly, none of it was a surprise because I knew that Jennifer (Bush) Mesinger was in charge. 

Boulder’s best-known baker and pastry chef grew up in Jamestown, where her mother made desserts for the Flagstaff House Restaurant, and went on to culinary school and suffered the typical indignities experienced by a female pastry chef in male-dominated kitchens. 

I became aware of Mesinger when she returned to Boulder and made a name baking pastries for the Big Red F Restaurants. She opened Lucky’s Bakehouse in North Boulder in 2013 and became revered by families for her precisely made sweets—cakes, cookies, muffins, scones, cupcakes, and everything else yummy from the oven.

However, the savory side of Mesinger’s culinary passions went mostly unattended in her Lucky’s Bakehouse role until she approached Lucky’s Market (across the parking lot) about taking over the management of the nearby Lucky’s Café. She’s now the chef at the longtime breakfast and lunch destination while continuing operations at the bakery. 

You can see the change in the scratch-made menu at the reborn Lucky’s Bakehouse Cafe with dishes like housemade biscuits in chorizo gravy, the inside-out grilled cheese sandwich with tomato soup, shrimp tostada with pinto beans, avocado, cotija cheese, and pumpkin seed cilantro pesto, and a genuine avgolemono soup.

In the world of food and drink, resumes don’t always reflect the extreme challenges and unpredictability of the profession. Chefs and others whose careers extend over decades manage to navigate the career depths, heights, and terrors to continue creating and contributing in new ways. 

Jennifer Mesinger is one such local culinary survivor along with award-winning Denver chef Dana Rodriguez and brewing expert Julia Herz.  

Courtesy Dana Rodriguez

A real ‘Chef’ at Casa Bonita

The last time I ate at Casa Bonita in 2001 I found the food to be absolutely horrific—almost inedible enchiladas—except for the sopapillas. I’ve spent decades making fun of the fare there along with everybody else, but I won’t be able to do that when Casa Bonita reopens under the ownership of the guys behind South Park.

Dana Rodriguez has been named the executive chef at the “new” Casa Bonita.

I first met Rodriguez 18 years ago as I spent 12 months chronicling the opening of Jennifer Jasinski’s Rioja restaurant in Larimer Square. The Juarez-born sous chef told me that the hardest thing about opening a restaurant is finding the right people who will love the work. After interviewing a dishwasher, she noted that working at Rioja would be his second job. “He’s crazy. He wants two jobs. I understand. I like to work a lot, too. That’s why they call me ‘Loca,’” Rodriguez says. 

Rodriguez has gone on to be nominated for three prestigious James Beard awards as the chef/owner of Denver’s acclaimed Work & Class and super-fun Super Mega Bien. “Loca food” is known to be flavor-forward and authentic but always fun and hand-made with great ingredients. 

One reason Rodriguez added the restaurant to her resume was that the first place she applied for work in Denver was at Casa Bonita as a dishwasher. The eatery never acknowledged her application. Now she’ll have the opportunity to change a legendary local food narrative and hire dozens of local workers who like to work hard. 

Courtesy Julia Herz

‘Beer has no gender’ 

The American brewing renaissance that made Boulder a craft brew epicenter was initially and largely the domain of men. That reality has changed significantly over the years Julia Herz has been active in the brewing world since first volunteering at the Great American Beer Festival. 

Herz has become a certified beer judge, an Advanced Cicerone (a beer sommelier), a beer educator and co-author of a special free “Beer and Food Course” and “Beer Pairing: The Essential Guide from the Pairing Pros” (Voyageur Press). 

A few years ago I asked Herz about beer, men, and women. 

“The mentality that ‘beer is a man’s beverage’ is fading. About 32 percent of craft beer is bought by women versus only 20 percent of mass market domestic beers. Beer making is changing. About 21 percent of the leadership positions at craft brewing companies are now women. Beer has no gender,” she said. 

Julia Herz rose to become the craft beer program director for the Boulder-based Brewers Association. For more than a decade she was the dynamic face of mainstreaming craft brew in the U.S. It was shocking when Herz and other staff members were laid off due to the impact of the pandemic in June 2020.

It was good to hear recently that Herz has been rehired by the Brewers Association to be the new executive director of the American Homebrewers Association, the original Boulder beer organization. 

As Herz proudly notes, she made her first batch of homebrew in 1991, and she has been brewing ever since.

John Lehndorff hosts Radio Nibbles at 8:20 a.m. Thursdays on KGNU (88.5 FM, streaming at kgnu.org). 

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